Countering a Swedish-Finnish bid for NATO membership has been a perennial Kremlin goal. That now looks to have failed as the countries seem poised to join.
The formal application to the military alliance by Finland and Sweden, expected this month, amounts to a serious political setback for Russia’s leadership.
How can the Kremlin be expected to react?
The speed of the domestic decision-making processes in Helsinki and Stockholm, in close dialogue with NATO, has left Russia struggling to forge a coherent response. Military posturing and various hybrid threats have been tested on Sweden and Finland for many years. It is reasonable to expect such campaign measures to reappear, although it is unlikely they will change the eventual outcome.
Current developments represent a significant sea-change. Following the outcome of World War II, Finland was forced to accept the so-called Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance in 1948, giving Russia a veto on Finland’s foreign and security policy. Sweden, for its part, retained its tradition of military non-alignment, while engaging in secret defense cooperation with the US. Both countries joined the European Union after the end of the Cold War, eventually deepening their military ties with NATO countries.
In 2017, I was able to document how Russian state actors had disseminated over 25 forged documents, in combination with the use of coercive diplomacy, to prevent Sweden’s ratification of a NATO Host Agreement the previous year. The Russian fakes included claims about Swedish cooperation with the Islamic State, conspiracies to install former Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt as Prime Minister of Ukraine, and secret military aid to Ukraine. Several of the social media accounts used to disseminate the Russian fakes were later attributed by Facebook to the Russian intelligence services.
Finland has been the target of similar campaigns. Finnish authorities have been accused of discriminating against ethnic Russians, kidnapping Russian children, and rehabilitating “Nazi” practices. Earlier this year, the Russian news website Regnum published an article titled “Why does Finland want to join NATO? Because they have a Hitler cult.” There have also been false claims that Finland was moving heavy military equipment toward its border with Russia. A similar article claimed that Sweden was inherently racist because the country was moving closer toward NATO.
There have also been other forms of harassment. In 2015 and 2016, Russian border guards — an arm of the FSB intelligence agency — transferred migrant workers from Central Asia and the Middle East across the borders of Finland and Norway to test the countries’ political reactions and resolve. This strategy was repeated on a mass scale by Belarus against Poland and Lithuania last year. In 2015, Russian ships attempted to disrupt the construction of a Swedish-Lithuanian electric power chord through the Baltic Sea.
It is reasonable to expect Russian propaganda to intensify in the coming weeks and months. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, has said that any Swedish-Finnish decision to join NATO would mean both countries would have to live with Russian nuclear and hypersonic missiles close to their borders. Kremlin officials have reverted to well-established rhetoric, speaking of “serious military and political consequences that would require an adequate response”. Russian fighter jets have also violated Finnish and Swedish airspace. On 12 May, when the Finnish government announced its intentions to apply for NATO membership, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) published a preprepared statement (falsely) accusing Finland of violating its existing treaty commitments.
We are observing a repeat of past practices. In 2015, Russia’s ambassador to Denmark threatened to use nuclear missiles against Danish warships if the country joined the NATO ballistic missile defense system. The same year, Maria Zakharova, spokesperson of the Russian MFA, argued that “Sweden’s accession to NATO would have military and political implications requiring Russia to take retaliatory steps”. In 2016, a Russian politician warned Norway the country was on Moscow’s “list of targets for our strategic weapons”, following the deployment of 330 US Marines to Værnes.
Nevertheless, decades of propaganda and coercive diplomacy by Russian authorities have been unable to prevent Sweden and Finland from moving closer toward NATO. The coming weeks and months will see the geostrategic balance in the Baltic Sea shift decisively, a serious blow to Russia’s foreign policy goals for the region.
Martin Kragh is deputy director of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
May 13, 2022